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For Kith and Kin

For Kith and Kin: The Folk Art Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, written by American Art curators Judy Barter and Monica Obniski, highlights sixty illustrious and unique works from, as the title suggests, the Art Institute's Folk Art collection. The pieces, many of which have never been published, are on permanent display in the newly reinstalled Folk Art gallery (Gallery 227).

Okay, now that you're there (you're reading this on your phone, right?), let's talk about the collection. It varies hugely in terms of media—furniture, ceramics, painting, sculpture, architectural elements drawing, and a weather vane or two. It also stretches across time, from the late 1600s to the mid-twentieth century. As an introduction to the collection, I'd like to write about three of my favorite pieces.

First off, there's John Haley Bellamy's Eagle, c. 1900. This eagle reminds me of a t-shirt this one dude in my high school used to wear all the time. It said "Mamas like good boys; chicks dig bad boys." I don't think it actually used a semicolon, though. Either way, this eagle is a total bad boy. Spanning only a modest two-and-a-half feet, this is still an intimidating bird—I mean, he's covered in gold leaf, first off. Next, he's clutching a shield and has an American flag draped on his wings. His head is cocked to the left, probably looking off at some shenanigan that displeases him. This is one of many eagles Bellamy carved during his life. In fact, he made an entire business of it. He created jobs by manufacturing eagle sculptures. This guy would win the 2012 election in a heartbeat were he still alive.

Next, we have William Bonnell's portrait of nine-year-old J. Ellis Bonham. This painting and its companion portraits of Ellis's parents were produced on three consecutive days in March, 1825. They feel much newer, though, incorporating visual aspects and cues (the disproportion, the odd lighting, the anxious mood) we've come to recognize in more contemporary art. So, was Bonnell part of an extreme avant-garde, a century or more ahead of his time? Nope! He just wasn't really all that great of a painter! I particularly love that you can pretty much predict the life arc of the young Bonham just by looking at this painting: he became a lawyer who loved to read and died of tuberculosis before reaching 40. Things were tough back then.

Finally, we wouldn't be talking about folk art if I didn't mention at least one unattributed work with an unknown date of creation. Female Bust, created some time between 1800 and 1830, came to the Art Institute from Chicago collector George F. Harding Jr. Though there is no specific evidence that this was designed as a figurehead for a ship, it's easy to imagine this figure's steely gaze bravely leading a ship through rough water. (Right?) Hiding your emotions is an important quality on the bounding main.

John Haley Bellamy. Eagle, 1870/1900. Bequest of Elizabeth R. Vaughan.

William C. Bonnell. J. Ellis Bonham, 1825. Estate of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch.

Artist unknown. Female Bust, 1800/30. George F. Harding Collection.